Crossing the Channel (Billy and Jackie)

Last lecture, we talked at length about the poem ‘London’ and the image it carves of a broken and corrupted city. William Blake’s view of a port town in England wasn’t great, and it bore some odd similarities to a much later view of a similar city by a robust Belgian named Jacques Brel.

Jacques Brel sang in French, but has been covered masterfully by David Bowie, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Scott Walker. Both Bowie and Walker have done takes on ‘Amsterdam’, a powerful song about a grim and depressing topic. There are many differences, but the bottom line is that both Blake and Brel’s vision of their city is one of crushed hopes and abundant venereal disease. The contrast deserves analysis.

Both the poem and the song have a cyclical slant, with ‘London’ showing a ‘curse’ (venereal disease) being passed on through a family, and Brel saying that in the same night, sailors die and are born in the port of Amsterdam. There is, within the cyclical, a touch of the binding and hopeless – Blake explicitly states the presence of ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, while Brel’s rantlike list of vices strongly implies a stagnation in the low life of mariners and those who service them. The feeling in both is a pervasive hopelessness, the people of the respective cities locked into a grimy life. Children are brought into the world staring down the barrel of this hopelessness, with Blake’s child cursed for its father’s venality and Brel’s young lad born into a class of drunken, whoremongering sailors.

The difference is mainly sympathy, as Blake was significantly more humanistic (and more sex-positive) than Brel. In Blake, the only person really at fault is the father of the child, who has passed the illness he took for his gratification to his unknowing wife and child. In Brel, one can be fairly sure that the acerbic Belgian hates the city of Amsterdam and its inhabitants to his core. He paints a picture of the sailors as unilaterally grotesque, vulgar and brutal, and no kinder to the prostitutes, who he describes as ‘bargain[ing] their bodies and virtue’ to them for ‘a few dirty coins’. Looking at Brel’s discography, it’s hard to find people that he actually likes (his view of the Catholic Church and the upper class in general was very snide), but his most stinging barbs seem to be hurled at women, either specific women in his life or the gender as a whole (that said, he seems to have¬†deeply valued¬†his male friends, as in ‘Jef’, where he talks his buddy out of suicide). Brel’s attitude towards sex seems extremely bitter and distrustful, which makes an exceptionally sharp divide with Blake’s indictment of a time where ‘sweet love was thought a crime’.

In that way, ‘London’ has a more sympathetic set of circumstances, but also a more saddening conclusion when one realizes that even the innocent among them is screwed straight out the gate. If ‘Amsterdam’ sounds like the brandy-abetted rant of good old boy who feels cheated and/or disgusted by their town, ‘London’ rings more like somebody who can feel the Jacob Marley-esque weight of those self-made chains on their body, and opts to take a look around to see that they’re not the only one. I’ll try to end this post on a lighter note (this material is hitting me like a fistful of Seconal, which I definitely wouldn’t recommend in practice) so I’ll say this: Brel and Blake were both brilliant manipulators of language and emotion, and I’m just tickled to be enjoying their work as a graded exercise.

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